Heading Out Into the Desert… as a Group
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
March 11, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on 1st Sunday of Lent (Year C) on March 10, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91; Romans 10:8-13; and Luke 4:1-13.

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. However, the other readings today do NOT emphasize temptation. They are all about crying out to God in faith when we are in need.  

This Lent, what gifts do we need from God? And what’s holding us back from asking God for those gifts?

But first, let us acknowledge the moments in our lives when we’ve failed to reach out to God and to one another.

Our gospel passage gives us many avenues for reflection on how we are tempted and how we are dependent on God. But I worry that some of us jump to at least two wrong conclusions about this story. First of all, we should not get hung up on Jesus’ ability to go a full 40 days without eating. Scientists tell us that most people can only go 21 days without food before dying. If Jesus truly went 40 days without eating, he must have been helped along by his divine nature. 

Secondly and more importantly, we should not be holding up 40 days of complete social isolation as an ideal for how we are supposed to grow closer to God. We human beings are, by our very nature, social creatures. Even in the Christian tradition, when people go on religious retreats, we hardly ever engage in complete isolation. In the early tradition of Christian asceticism, the saints who left civilization to live in the Egyptian desert still lived in communities. In the Franciscan retreat tradition, one lives in a hermitage by oneself, but with two other hermitages strategically placed in sight. I often go on 8-day silent Ignatian retreats, but that “silence” includes attending daily Mass, eating meals in common with other people who are not talking, and having a daily conversation with a spiritual director. I think Jesus could undergo 40 days of isolation because he wasn’t isolated in the same way as we are – he had a more profound connection with the Father.

All our readings today speak of calling out to God in times of trouble. Our Deuteronomy reading in particular makes clear, we don’t necessarily call out to God only as individuals.

I’ve spent most of the past two days at South By Southwest, and remarkably, there has been a lot of programming around the concept of social isolation, but I’ll just give details from one specific talk. Professor Dawn Fallik of the University of Delaware gave a fascinating talk on the research around loneliness. Researchers are finding that “Generation Z” – the people currently aged 18 to 22 – suffer from loneliness and isolation more than any previous generation. It’s not necessarily because of social media, however. American young adults are more likely to have grown up with “over-programmed” childhoods that left little time for learning how to make friends or how to deal with boredom. It is less likely that they played with the kids on their block, or that their neighbors ran over to ask for a cup of sugar. They were less likely to overhear their parents having long conversations with friends on the phone.

Fallik was joined by Professor Julia Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University who presented powerful, conclusive research from around the world about the health risks of social isolation. Social isolation has more detrimental effects on our health than smoking, consuming alcohol, getting divorced, being obese, or breathing polluted air. The less friends we have, the more likely we are to suffer from hypertension and inflammation. Most frightening of all, social isolation increases the risk of suicide. These statistics are true regardless of age, gender, culture, or initial health condition.

Why am I talking about isolation, when I’m supposed to be preaching about Christ’s temptation in the desert? Because I am convinced that we, as a nation, are succumbing to Satan’s temptation to become more and more isolated from one another. We do this in part by promoting isolation as a value masquerading under other names, such as “independence” or “autonomy.” In promoting isolation, I think we’re feeding into a phenomenon that makes it harder for us to flourish as humans, and taking us further away from God.

At the beginning of Mass, I asked: “What gifts do we need from God? And what’s holding us back from asking God for those gifts?” In Hebrew, the word for obstacle is “satan.” For many of us, is the obstacle, or satan, our misguided idea that religion and spirituality are things we do on our own?

For the past 50 years, as Catholics have become more integrated into society, we have been given the choice whether to engage with Church and spirituality in a socially integrated way or in a socially isolated way. For a lot of us, our relationship with God could be enhanced if our church experience were also a place of greater social integration. One of the best-kept secrets about St. Austin is that we have at least ten official SCCs – “Small Christian Communities,” groups of 8-12 individuals or families that meet every week or every other week throughout the city. If you’d like to try one out, go to the Small Christian Communities page at staustin.org to explore. We also have lots of “unofficial” SCCs, too, such as GAP, CRHP, families that sit together for coffee and donuts, the Thursday outreach volunteers, and the people who help prepare and clean up the Sunday supper. I’m sure if we had a huge influx of new people interested in joining SCCs, we could start some new ones. No decision has been made yet about redeveloping our property here, but I’m convinced the SCCs will become essential to our sense of a community during the period if we become temporarily exiled from the meeting spaces here at the corner of 21st and Guadalupe.

So this Lent, perhaps we’re not called to head out alone into the desert. Perhaps one discipline we can take up for the rest of our lives is to bring back the culture of building micro-connections. Talk with people in line at the bus stop and the grocery store, even if they’re initially engaged with their smart phone. Before or after Mass, ask someone you don’t know very well a question of substance, something that gives them opportunity to really share something about themselves.

As Paul told the Romans, “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” We don’t call on the LORD just as individuals. As Americans, we often forget that the goal is for us to get to heaven collectively.